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October 24, 2005

A History of Violence - David Cronenberg

Posted by Seamus Sweeney

A History of Violence
Directed by David Cronenberg
certificate 18, 2005

Small-town America, in the emotional universe of Steven Spielberg and his imitators, is shorthand for elementary American virtues neighbourliness, humility, family life, the civic-mindedness of the Rotarians, the Elks and the other voluntary societies that seem so much more vigorous in America than Europe that, while threatened over the course of the drama, ultimately emerge triumphant. For American independent film-makers with David Lynch's Blue Velvet the template small town America is shorthand for dark secrets, for rotten flesh beneath benign exteriors.

A History of Violence's long opening scene establishes the tone of the film. We track two unnamed men as they leave some motel room somewhere, one drives the car to the office door while the other, older man goes to settle the bill. A blast of country music on the car stereo, then the older man reappears. Throughout this long shot we hear an unsettling buzz, the fizz of fluorescent light and of air-conditioners, resonant of buzzing flies. The men realise they need more water for the trip, and the younger man goes back into the office. There we discover just how these men settle their bills.

We then focus on the life of Tom Stalls (Viggo Mortensen). Stalls is an archetypal small town good guy. A kind father, a loving husband, a pleasant, bantering boss in his diner, his public image and private face seem to coincide. Mortensen's rangy build and looks suits this kind of role.

When the two bad men (as they certainly are, and as they are called in the film with a certain faux-naivete) from the opening scene try to hold up Stalls' diner, a sudden berserker brilliance descends on Stalls. In quick order, there are no more bad men. A media hoopla ensues. Stalls wants none of it.

On his return from hospital, a reporter ensconsed on Stalls' lawn asks:

How did it feel?
Stalls replies, before marching (as much as one can march after being stabbed in the foot) into his house:
Not very good.
It seems at first that the Stalls' domestic harmony is restored. However, when Ed Harris and various other tough-looking men in dark glasses and dark suits turn up in the diner, calling Tom Stalls "Joey" and referring to a past life in Philadelphia, as sure as picket fences are white and velvet is blue the Dark Secrets are becoming unveiled.

I must confess that given their dress code's similarity to that of the Men in Black, and given Cronenberg's previous repertoire of head-wrecking (in all senses, at times) movies, I suspected that Harris and his chums were men from the government, and that Stalls' history of violence would turn out to be some kind of top secret assassination squad or such. This is a more sober and less ostentatiously unsettling film than such predictability.

As the action proceeds, however, a different kind of predictability is seen. Reviewing Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, the critic David Denby wrote:

Despite the prologue, the main body of the film is not as radical as I imagine Anderson would like to think. Most of it is fairly commonplace, Arthur Miller-type stuff about how you can't escape the past, you can't escape the evil you've done, and what we all really need is to be truthful with one another.
And there's the rub. The film is not as radical as I imagine Cronenberg would like to think. It may not be, like Magnolia, a creaky melodrama dressed up in arty clothing, but if there is any "message" it is "commonplace, Arthur Miller-type stuff".

The film is adapted from a graphic novel, and the dialogue and characterisation bear the marks of their source. The characters particularly the "bad men" - speak in a clipped, quasi-Mamet diction. One can almost see the speech bubbles materialising beside their mouths. There is a strange blankness to all the characters understandable in the case of Stalls, who it turns out has made himself a tabula rasa, but less explicable in the other characters.

Ashton Holmes, for instance, shows flashes of wit and charisma in his role as the Stalls' teenage son, yet he seems trapped in the designated role of Sensitive Son, bullied by the high school jocks. One can't help feeling that characters from books have more depth and richness, while characters from comic books are more figuratively two-dimensional.

There are two sex scenes which, rather leadenly, illustrate Stalls' transformation from tender husband to man of violence. Male sexuality and violence are predictably (albeit not explicitly) linked. Blue Velvet is, one feels, the template again. And once again, one is not shocked by the violent sex in which the new, violent Stalls (who is, of course, the old violent Stalls) engages in. One feels that it was an inevitable part of the mis-en-scene of this kind of film, resulting from the strain the father-son relationship comes under.

Cronenberg's technical assurance is such that the film is always interesting to watch, and a film that shows the reality of violence rather than so much blasting and punching has something to commend it. Howard Shore's score occasionally hits bathetic notes, and the multiplex audience I saw the film with laughed at clearly unsuitable places repeatedly. From the start Mortensen's easygoing charm has something strained and forced about it, and it becomes something darker and blanker as the film goes on. There is something of Frodo about him, particularly the Frodo more than half in love with the idea of just putting on the damn Ring of Power and letting go.

As with many films, A History of Violence is most effective when it isn't straining too hard to make a statement, something broad and over-arching about Violence and the Human Condition or Violence and Masculinity. If only it didn't have such a portentous title.

Seamus Sweeney is a medical graduate and freelance writer. He is a contributor to Meet the Philosophers of Ancient Greece (Ashgate, 2005).

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